I’ve always been enchanted by the hymn “They cast their nets in Galilee” that we sang this morning. The words are taken from a poem written by William Alexander Percy in 1924. It’s simplistic in a way, conjuring up images of a modest life. These first disciples worked as common folk along the shores of the lake, scratching out a living with their families, heading out onto the waters for the daily catch. It’s not unlike the work of teachers, or bakers, or electricians, or nurses, or any of the rest of us that make our living helping society run. While in our mind “fishing” might be a recreational activity—just like “baking” is to a home baker like me—these folks who did it for a living worked unbelievably hard for hours on end. Those Galilean fishermen had to deal with the vagaries of the weather or the movements of their potential catch. They had to fix the leaks in the boat and constantly mend their torn nets. Their life may have been simple, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
And into that life came Jesus. Walking along the shore where the boats were docked, he saw these four fishermen working hard. “Follow me,” he calls to them. We don’t hear from Mark what about that call made it irresistible to them, maybe the way Jesus appeared, or the earnestness in his eyes, or the authenticity they could sense in his presence, whatever it was, they followed him. They traded in the nets of their work in order to become those who fish for people. In order to become disciples.
They left it all in order to follow him.
Whenever we played “follow the leader” as kids, we knew we had to do the things the leader did. If she climbed up the slide to ride it back down, so did we. If she swung her arms in big circles, so did we. If she stomped through muddy puddles, well, even if we weren’t wearing our rain boots that day, so did we. We followed that leader through thick and thin no matter what because we didn’t want to let the others down.
“They cast their nets in Galilee /Just off the hills of brown;/Such happy, simple fisher-folk,/Before the Lord came down” writes Percy in that first stanza of our hymn, before turning more fully toward the life that lay before them, to the way in which they would follow this leader. “Contented, peaceful fishermen,/Before they ever knew/The peace of God that filled their hearts/Brimful, and broke them too.” We know the details of Jesus’ life, of course. His was the way of love. He brought healing to people who had for years been under the stranglehold of an illness. He gave hope to people who had long since lost having even an ounce of it. He told stories opening up hard truths about God in everyday language so that people could know God in a new way. He laughed and ate and drank and changed water into wine, and walked on the sea and made his followers feel as if for the first time in their lives they had truly found peace. Their hearts were filled to the brim and overflowing with the peace that he brought them.
Yet we also know his way is the way of the cross. No, his disciples didn’t know this back at the start, on the day we read about today when Jesus first started calling them. But it became clear that his was also the way of being persecuted by much of the religious elite. Of causing anxiety to grow in those who held power. Of encountering those who didn’t believe him or wished him harm. Of hearing that he was an enemy, and needed to be silenced. That peace of God that filled his followers’ hearts? Well, it broke them too.
We didn’t sing Percy’s third stanza this morning, but it makes quite clear what following Jesus meant for two of the men he encountered on that Galilean seashore. “Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,/Homeless, in Patmos died./Peter, who hauled the teeming net,/Head down was crucified.” Percy’s poem about a simplistic way of life and following Jesus doesn’t hold back on telling the truth. Following this leader is costly.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer explored this in his book The Cost of Discipleship. As you may recall, Bonhoeffer lived during the time of Hitler’s rise to power, and adamantly spoke out against the Nazis and their party beginning in 1933. Bonhoeffer adamantly opposed Hitler’s move to take over the German Lutheran church, and he worked to establish the Confessing Church which made it clear that Christ was the head of the church and not the Führer. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in 1943 for his work against the Nazi regime, and he was executed in April 1945 at the Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before American soldiers liberated the camp. He was 39 years old. His book, The Cost of Discipleship, was written during that time in 1937.
Amidst the backdrop of a life he could not have imagined for himself, Bonhoeffer details the difference between cheap and costly grace. He described cheap grace as forgiveness without repentance, or as a grace without discipleship. He saw this, of course, in the lives of those Christian pastors who had signed on with Hitler’s takeover of the church—more than 80% of them. Listen to how he explains what he describes as costly grace: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”(45) Bonhoeffer saw that following the true way of Jesus would be costly for him, just as it was for Jesus himself.
Poet William Alexander Percy ends our hymn in this way, “The peace of God, it is no peace,/But strife closed in the sod. /Yet let us pray for but one thing—The marvelous peace of God.” God’s peace isn’t peace because it brings about strife, it is costly. And yet, as Bonhoeffer puts it, it gives one the only true life. And so we pray for that one thing even though it is so very costly, that marvelous peace of God.
The words are haunting. To seek a peace that will cause our hearts to overflow with joy, but will lead to immense pain too. A peace that will bring conflict into our daily lives, yet no other life could be so meaningful. I know some in this congregation who’ve been ridiculed and rejected by family members because they choose to follow the way of Christ. I’ve met others who’ve took a stand for ethics in their line of work, only to be fired. Friends have faced scorn from others because of their stand for the poor. Students have chosen not to cheat on a test with their peers and then faced both a lower grade and the questioning of their sanity. I’ve personally received hate-filled letters because I chose to follow the way of Jesus and respect the dignity of every human being, including those of different faiths.
Following Jesus where he leads is very costly, make no mistake about that. It will lead to strife in our own lives as we wrestle with how to embody his way of peace. But I cannot imagine a different life because of that marvelous peace of God. A peace that leads to the fullest life we could imagine.
Is it worth it? Is it worth walking behind Jesus on his way?
I for one will take my place behind Peter and James and John and Andrew. Alongside Mary and Martha and Mary Magdalene. I’ll walk with Joseph Burnett, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rosa Parks, and Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr, and so many countless others who have trod the simple way of faith that Jesus invited them to; a way that many continue to follow even to this day. Will you?